Could the 1978 Christmas blackout in France happen again this year?


The fear of cuts this winter is on everyone’s mind, as temperatures have (finally) begun their seasonal drop. For several months, the government has been working to implement a vast “energy sobriety” plan, encouraging French households to pay more attention to their consumption this year. Because the situation is critical: in France, most of the EDF reactors are shut down, while the price of gas is exploding because of the war in Ukraine and the drought has drained the dams.

In the event of a peak in consumption this winter, RTE, the manager of the electricity network, could therefore have no other solution than to cut off the power in certain households. This is the principle of “rotating load shedding” mentioned by Elizabeth Borne a few weeks ago. Concretely, the electricity could be cut, for two hours, at the scale of a city or a district, from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., or from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

These measures are above all dependent on the weather this winter. But the chances of escaping it are slim, according to several players in the sector. “If we have a normally cold, or very cold winter, we will not be able to do without load shedding”, underlined the secretary of the social and economic committee of EDF on October 13.

“If this winter, a major European city were to find itself plunged into darkness, it will certainly be Paris. Because France is facing an electric Waterloo”, commented Javier Blas, energy reporter at Bloomberg.

In the memories, the memory of the winter of 1978, at the height of the oil crisis, is still vivid: it is a question, for the public authorities, of avoiding such a fiasco.

That year, on December 19, the country lived in darkness for several hours: the blackout caused an unprecedented mess.

On the morning of Tuesday, December 19, 1978, it was quite cold. Christmas is coming. At 8:27 a.m., as traders prepare to raise the curtain, three-quarters of the country is suddenly plunged into complete darkness.

Overconsumption by households led to an electrical overload in an EDF substation near Nancy.

“It was enough for a large cable to jump for it to be automatically cut. As it happens in an apartment, when you put too many devices at the same time, suddenly the circuit breaker jumps”, explained . Marcel Boiteux, CEO of EDF at the time.

Eastern France, partly supplied by Germany and Italy, is the only region spared by the blackout.

Elsewhere, there is panic.

The trains, the metros, are at a standstill, the elevators break down, the traffic lights no longer turn. Some hospitals, for lack of a generator, are closing their doors.

Many French people are deprived of heating, some are stuck at home, on the 15th floor, with no way to communicate with the outside world.

In Paris, it’s chaos in the street: people rush into buses and taxis, traffic jams paralyze the city.

The situation will last several hours. Around noon, the current gradually begins to return. Fortunately, there will be more fear than harm…

The fact remains that, the next day, the front pages of the newspapers took over the event: “France short-circuited”, headlines La Nouvelle République, “Economic life stops”, notes Le Figaro, “France has tripped ”, comments Le Républicain Lorrain…

It was the largest power outage in the country’s history. But not the only one.

A little less than ten years later, France will again be affected by a major electrical incident.

Monday, January 12, 1987, while a cold wave crossed the country, three production units at the Cordemais thermal power station (Loire-Atlantique) cut out, causing cuts in the West and in Paris.

Brittany finds itself entirely in the dark, for half an hour, while Normandy, the Pays de la Loire and the Paris region are partially offloaded.

In the process, “In order to prevent the whole of France from being deprived of electricity, as during the “black Tuesday” of December 19, 1978, the management of EDF had to carry out major load shedding and “islanding” several power stations”, relates Le Monde at the time.

On December 27 and 28, 1999, two storms of rare intensity hit Europe head-on. In France, the wind destroyed 23,000 electric poles and high-voltage pylons, and caused the shutdown of 3 nuclear power plants. 3.6 million households are without electricity. This is the worst destruction ever suffered by the French electricity network. It will take almost 3 weeks to fully restore it.

If a storm of such magnitude is not yet on the program this winter, could it be that, like December 1978 and January 1987, an unforeseen blackout is paralyzing the country this year?

I nternet, networks, technology… Such a widespread breakdown could have even more serious consequences than in the last century.

For now, the public authorities are doing everything to avoid the worst. If necessary, rotating load shedding could relieve the tension on the network. In 1978 and 1987, the breakdowns occurred in December and January. Traditionally, these are indeed the coldest months of the year.

However, the latest forecasts from Météo France, in this regard, are quite reassuring. According to the institution, temperatures should approach seasonal normals, or even be higher, in the continuity of a fairly mild autumn.

But one unknown remains: France is not immune to “cold snaps”, and these disturbances can only be anticipated a few days in advance.